Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership and other stuff I learned on the river.

I have too much stuff.

We moved last week. A team of five dudes over two days to move us one mile down the road and seven days later we are still unpacking boxes.

For six or seven years while I was chasing whitewater I could fit everything I owned in a Jeep Cherokee. I eventually upgraded, as we always do, to a Chevy Silverado. Even then there was still room for me and the only girl in my life at the time to sleep in the back. Except for the time she fetched a dead possum’s head at a truck stop in Ohio, she slept in the cab that night.

There is a beautiful simplicity carrying only what you need. The day before our wedding I carried all my worldly possessions to my bride to be’s flat in two duffle bags and left them in the hall. They say you will always fill the bag you choose to travel with. Silverados and duffle bags became a flat and now a house. Each one we fill with more stuff, Much of it is still not more valuable than that old drysuit.

Although this couch I’m sitting on is way more comfortable than a tailgate, I sometimes miss the freedom of simplicity.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“I prefer to learn the hard way.”


I rarely learn from other people’s mistakes, and as a leader learning from mistakes is key to education and leadership development. One leadership lesson all good leaders must learn is knowing when to make the correct decision, even when it’s not a popular decision.

I am not sure of the statute of limitations on offences committed in the state of Maine so all the names of this theoretical example have been changed to protect…..everyone.

Fireworks are illegal in the State of Maine.

The State of Maine is unmatched in beauty and wilderness. Nearly 80% of the land is owned by the State or logging companies, so there is little development and much of the state is covered in lush dense forests. To protect the land and wildlife from what would otherwise be devastating fires, understandably Maine has outlawed the use of a great bastion of celebration, fireworks. At least that was the case in the mid 90’s.

So when one of our weekend warrior guides, whom we will simply call “Gary”, drives up from out of state on the 4th of July weekend and arrives with a trunk full of firework contraband, the correct decision would be to inform “Gary” of the dangers and legality of setting off fireworks in the State of Maine and instruct him to leave them in the trunk of the car. This would not have been the popular decision, but it was the correct decision. Mistake #1.

So as we “a group of guides” headed down to the chosen secret spot, the last left just before the The Forks bridge, down to the end of the ballfield and the last camp spot amongst the trees along the river. Chosen cause the leafy trees provided adequate cover from pesky park rangers and game wardens, while the banks of the river at low flow was the perfect spot to allegedly launch a few modest fire balls into the night sky. Just before heading to this unknowable location, an idea was floated to the van full excited participants. Because safety is always a priority for Registered Maine Guides, in July proper hydration should be maintained, So I suggested a cooler we’ll refer to as “Barndance” to protect the brand name, should be filled with Sport Drinks and bottled water. However, there was a strong group of dissenters, led by of course “Gary”, “David”, “Jeffery” and probably a trouble maker we will refer to as “Christopher.” They felt that “Barndance” should be filled with an inexpensive fermented drink known in some cultures as cerveza or birra. The correct decision would be to inform this unruly mob that, although it was quite chilly out and pouring with rain, a beverage of that nature would not quench the insatiable thirst that setting off fireworks conjures. This would not have been a popular decision but it would have been the correct decision. Mistake #2.

Out voted, your truly, was told to pick up a few bags of ice to keep the macro brews cold. As predicted, these wee 12oz beverages couldn’t keep up with the water loss that shivering in the freezing rain while swatting black flies and no-see-ums induced. So as “barndance” quickly began to run dry, the evening’s fireworks of bottle rockets and black cats crescendoed and the biggest set were saved for last. Interestingly, “Gary” didn’t want to have any part of the grand finale, possibly due to plausible deniability, but more likely due to his humble disposition and not wanting to draw attention to himself for a light show that was about to be seen by the entire community…. probably.

So allegedly myself and someone else, whom I cannot remember for reasons that will become apparent, were voluntold to light the large mortar boxes that had been saved for last. With the fuses adequately frayed and placement perfect, my accomplices and I approached with cheap Bic lighters in hand. “OK, On three…”

Timing, synchronicity, and a steely resolve are elements required to pull off a finale that adequately honors America’s freedom and independence. ….two…three…just as we were set to release the fiery Bald Eagles, disaster struck, a malfunction. Sure it was raining, sure the fuse on my box of mortars was racing to its thunderous termination. But there were literally 10’s of people counting on us. Coward might be too strong a word, but when my accomplice’s fuse didn’t light he dashed for cover. Was that the correct decision?

Leaders often fall into the trap of trying to please the crowd, rather than making correct decisions based on current information, and is overall better for the people whom you lead but also takes into account the safety of the leader him or herself.

In that moment a decision was needed: retreat to safety or stay and finish the job so many Americans and possibly a French-Canadian were counting on. The split second decision was made, I stayed…

With the liquidized courage of the Red, White, and Blue coursing through my veins, as if in slow motion, the sparks flew from the 25¢ lighter piercing the cold, wet, dark of night. Stretching and leaning over an eminent 21 canon salute, the flame but kissing the tip of the fuse on the second box…. Then, just as in the beginning of time, there was a tremendous light…

As the Chinese-made American tribute left the first tube destined for a patriotic report of awe and wonder, it was met with inpenratabla resistance. To this day what followed is fuzzy and unclear. The air was filled with the smell of America; sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate, and burning hair. As the sound of freedom bounced off the valley walls, for a brief moment I wondered if my sight would ever return. Around me were triumphant cheers of glory and success but at what cost. I seemed to no longer have eyebrows and was supporting a new fringe I didn’t start the evening with. As witnessed by spectators, the first mortar launched with violent velocity at what appeared to be a worrying ninety degree angle after ricocheting off the face of a sacrificial lamb.

As sight slowly returned and I began to realise that my eyes were indeed still on the inside of my head and the ringing in my ears started to subside, I began to register the roar of the apathetic applause. It was in that moment that a life long valuable leadership lesson was learned.

Bones heal, chicks dig scars, pain is temporary, but glory is forever.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

First rule of rafting, always have T.P.!

Wade Thompson

There is a sound…. IF you have experienced it, you only have to close your eyes to hear it…. the thunderous roar of water cascading over boulders in a dance of hydraulics and eddies… a symphony of violence and chaos…. churning and boiling as it flows to its final tranquil, calm resting place.

The sounds of whitewater have a frequency unheard by the human hear, but like a weapon of bio mass destruction, the resonances can have a profound impact on the lower GI track of the lowly raft guide. The guide must be prepared when this frequency is encountered. Its effects can strike at any given time… even sometimes in early spring just thinking about…. it ….. excuse me a minuet….

Every river, stream, creek, brook, and burn, in the world, apart from the Grand Canyon, is graded on a class system from I-VI. It is the dumbest system in the world. The aforementioned Grand Canyon uses a 1-10 system which, because it is exclusive to the Colorado river, is somewhat better.

Class I – Think lazy river at your local waterpark, Water Craft of choice 2 truck inner tubes. One for you and one to tow the cooler.

Class VI- Think Niagara Falls. Unrunnable in a water craft. And if some idiot tries it and lives. Well, now it’s Class V+. The idiocy of this system will be reserved for a rant at a different time. (Feel free to feed the fodder in the comments)

All commercially run rivers have to fall somewhere between II-V. With an inflation of “+” by commercial outfits and douchebags beginner kayakers and idiots who fling themselves off waterfalls.

Class II and III is just a great day on the river. Regardless of the experience of whoever is in the boat, mostly, good times will be had by all.

Class IV and V is a different matter altogether, and you know it when you hear it… Oh that sound… Penobscott, Gaully, some obscure river in the middle of Sasquatch country Washington….Just the thou… excuse me….

Whether a groover, Port o john, a park service loo, or popping a skwaat behind a parked put-in vehicle. NEVER LEAVE THE BASE WITHOUT THE BOG ROLL.

And this is advice for life. Even if you left the guide game long ago, in this crazy world we live in now, security is only a roll away.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

Today is an early start, and it reminds me of the many early starts during my time in the Forks.

But not one of the good ones. Today reminds me of the days when you knew you weren’t going to the river.

For me the good days started with the low rumble of a tired Suburban and the sound of its tires rolling over the gravel up to the door of my pop-up camper. That was usually enough, but if I delayed, a honk from the horn soon followed. Jon always seemed to be up before anyone else and ready to go.

The good days started with a trip to Berry’s General Store. Large coffee, and egg salad sandwich with the biggest “blue” flavour Poweraid on the shelf. That sport drink didn’t last till the register. Pay for an empty bottle and recycle on the way out.

The good days started with a slow drive to Moxie Pond just to turn around and drive back. Jon believed in commuting to work, even if you literally live where you work. So we drove, sippin’ coffee, laughin’, sometimes we just sat in silence enjoying the cool fresh air though the windows.

The good days meant heading to the river. It never mattered which one, or who you were with. On a good day the river was the destination and those days I cherished and miss.

But there were other days.

We often joked that we were a professional painting company, that happened to raft a bit on the weekends.

The other days started out similarly. There was always a trip to Berry’s but instead of river gear or that old pair of favourite Carhartts, you put on whatever you didn’t mind being covered in forest green paint, or spar varnish, and added to the list of coffee and egg salad a jug of paint thinner. I hate paint thinner.

In eight years as a professional whitewater raft guide I learned that you spend a lot of time doing things you really don’t like doing, in order to live for the good days. I miss the good days, and I will always miss my friend Jon, but I don’t miss the painting at all.

Now that I’m older the “bad days” of life can be much worse than a day of painting. A good hot coffee, friends, laughs, and some good tunes remind me that when you are with those you love you can survive the bad days and it makes the good ones that much sweeter.

I still really hate painting….

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“Everyone out of the boat…”


It was late winter, I was sitting at the bar with my new friend Chris at the Brew Pub on Dickson St. in Fayetteville, USA. I am quite sure we should have been studying for an upcoming exam in the class we shared, but our conversation turned to what our plans were for the summer. Chris knew someone who knew someone who had done some rafting in Maine and learned they were always looking for new guides. Training started in early May and Chris was going. My plans for the summer had fallen through and being on the river every day for a summer sounded pretty good. So we loaded up the trucks and drove to Maine.

To have whitewater you need three things: water volume, gradient, and structure. To have commercial viable whitewater rivers you have to add consistency. In Northwest Arkansas we have varying degrees to the first three, however we don’t have consistency. For that you need a snowpack in the mountains or a huge fauset, in the form of a hydroelectric dam. Maine has both.

I have spent many a day in an open canoe on the Buffalo National River, which was only a few miles from my house. Cut-off jeans and tube-tops were the uniform of choice and on a good day things could get exciting at Gray Rock, a class 2 riffle that would tip a few canoes creating a redneck yard sale of folding chairs, fishing rods, and beer koozies. Unattended coolers full of cold beer floating down a river in a dry county was the hillbilly equivalent of winning the lottery. As far as real whitewater, up to this point I had never seen a whitewater raft in person, much less ride one down something that would require a helmet and life jacket. These things were totally against my rules of life, #1 Always look good for the camera, #2 Don’t spill your beer, and of course Safety 3rd.

The First day of training to be a Registered Maine Guide

After a 36 hour road trip I remember emerging early from my tent to see my breath and large patches of snow still visible in the forest behind our campsite. As we gathered and met all the new victim…I mean trainees, the staff kindly led us over to the room where all the wetsuits were kept. We walked right by all the customer suits, neatly hung up smelling all fresh, to the back where the “vintage” suits were kept. I’m convinced these suits were part of a slow fermentation experiment, only to be disturbed once a year during training week. Otherwise stuffed in mesh bags with holes only big enough to let the spiders make their homes for the winter, we fished around to find suits that would fit… sorta. After getting our tired looking lifejackets and helmets, we grabbed a paddle and loaded up in an old faded white Chevy van that for some reason had one green bench seat that wasn’t attached to the floor.

I don’t remember much of the chat from the first day. We sat in the back of the van on the floor like sheep to slaughter, couldn’t really see out as the windows began to steam up during the 20 minute journey up to the dam. There seemed to be a nervous energy amongst the owners and the guides that were training us. Like an butcher not wanting to frighten the sheep, the guides spoke in some form of code the unsuspecting couldn’t understand. “It should be pretty exciting out there today, the river is running at over 13,000+ CFS.*” “Sweet 13,000C..f.. s”, I said while nodding in false confidence with the others, like a bunch of bobble heads. “What the hell is 13,000 cfs?” someone whispered.

*CFS = Cubic Feet per Second. It is the measure of the volume and flow of a river. For reference one CFS = about one basketball. The Kennebec river is considered a high flow river and on any given day the release from the hydro power dam was 4800 or sometimes 6000 cfs. On a couple of special scheduled days a year a max flow of 8000 cfs would be released. 13,000 basketballs per second was flood stage and a different ballgame altogether.

As we arrived at put-in we heard a thunderous roar of water as the flood gates were fully open and what seemed to be enough water to douse the fires of hell launched over the top of the dam. “What the heck have we got ourselves into?”

What outwardly seemed like mercy, we ended our first run at the halfway point. Wet, cold and out of breath after climbing the endless stairs at Carry Brook take out, we loaded up in the back of that ol’ white van to discover what seemed like mercy was actually S&M of the darkest kind. We had 5 more runs…

Most of that first day is fuzzy, If there was instruction, I don’t remember them. If they told us the names of rapids, it was a week before I could distinguish where one foamy cauldron from Sheol ended and a new one began. I am not even sure if everyone that started the day made it home. Nearly 25 years have passed and a few of the details have escaped me, however, the second trip down the river left an indelible mark that will never be forgotten. That trip began with owner Pete saying “All the trainees are with me.”

Pete was a tall, fit, middle aged man with a full head of black unkept curly hair, and a mustache that made Tom Selleck look like a boy in the throws of puberty. So when Pete said “get in,” we all got in. I didn’t remember any of the names of the rapids after the first trip, except one, Maytag. At the top of the rapid Pete told a boat full of cold, nervous, rookies that as soon as we hit the towering mountain of a wave known as Maytag we were to all jump out of the boat. We all responded with nervous laughter, cause NO WAY he could have been serious. We couldn’t have been more wrong. As the raft crested the powerful hydrolac he yelled “everyone out of the boat…” For possible legal reasons I can’t comment to the degree of willingness we all found ourselves out of the boat. But I would say fellow newbie “Skinny Ray,” recalls the life-saving grip he had on the line around the outside of the boat was mysteriously loosened by a sharp strike from a lone paddle from within the raft, and so began a violent, airless, dance with the sickle wielding creacher that tows the line that separates this life from the next.

If you want to know what “swimming” Maytag at 13000 cfs is like, imagine being flushed down a toilet. No, not your eco-friendly, low volume, home jobber. I’m talking about one of those airport types that are hooked up to some explosive air tank that with one false move misfires while you are still on it. Heaven forbid you are making a complete seal when it goes off. It’s the type that kept my niece from using public toilets until she was a teenager. Now imagine your one inch tall….that’s Maytag

I didn’t die, I didn’t die, I didn’t die… As our limp bodies were all pulled back into the boat with water and snot seemingly pouring out of every orifice, some heady questions began running though my mind.

1. Is our new boss legit, bat $!*t crazy? 2. Does he hate people from Arkansas? 3. How could that possibly be training?

As we coughed and sputtered and began to compose ourselves, Pete giggled at the pathetic sight of his fresh crop of new guides in training. Then, with a serious tone, he said, “Don’t ever forget what that felt like.”

What Pete knew then and would take me some time to learn is, The Kennebec River would not always feel like a place of darkness where dead people go, but in time would soon be a joy filled playground where we would regularly and voluntarily swim these same rapids for the pure enjoyment.

For the guide, remembering that feeling cautions us when working with guests who might be nervous or those rowdy ones who only think they want to flip the boat in the biggest rapids. Having that memory allows us to be a non-anxious presence when things don’t go to plan or fear is striking the heart of a crew member.

In life, it is the tough and sometimes painful experiences that help us become who and what we are. With time and with perspective, some of the worst experiences can become tales we tell others with humour around the campfire, or become opportunities to help guide others through similar experiences we now no longer fear in the same way.

There has never been a time in our generation that has been crazier than now. Mental and physical health, job loss, financial security, those around you might need an experienced “guide” that has walked through some of these things in the past, and through snot and tears said “I didn’t die, I didn’t die. You might be the help they are looking for.

* The details of this story, as with all Whitewater Wednesday stories, may not be factually accurate – it’s just how I remember it. No guides were… physically harmed in the events of this tale.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

A conversation overheard while stacking rafts.

Guide 1: “What do you think of the new guy?”

Ol’ Timer: “I don’t know, I’ve never seen him in trouble.”

For the first several years of guiding, I would head up to the Northeast after the University year ended. But come the end of August, I would have to pack up the Jeep and head back to Arkansas to start yet another year of my long college education.

Summer of 2000, the feeling…for the first time I didn’t have to go home… I was free!

I also didn’t have to stay in Maine. For the first time I got to take the pilgrimage to the whitewater mecca of North America. The Gauley River in West Virginia. Widely considered one of the top 5 rivers in the world, guides flood the region in hopes of picking up some work on the Upper Gauley during the short 6 week season in September and October.

This was my first journey and of course I followed my amigo Brendan to the craziest company on the river, Songer Whitewater. Days are early, long, and intense. The whitewater is epic, and the beer was cold on the bus after the trip and the first of several years did not disappoint.

Companies in the area raft other rivers during the summer months, and like elsewhere new guides come and train and earn their chops. Some make it, some don’t, some work hard and put in the work and others just seem to be naturals. I remember one such kid that was new to the company that year. It’s been 20 years now and I have long forgotten the names of these six week friends so we will just call him Jimmy.

I was helping stack rafts after a trip one day, I don’t think I even worked the trip but as we lived on site and you can only play so much frisbee golf, so you pitched in and helped out when it was needed. As we shifted and stacked heavy deflated rafts an intense discussion broke out about the importance of keeping the rafts turned facing the correct way on the trailer in order to insure good Karma from the ‘river gods’… this resulted in pulling deflated rafts off, turning, and re-stacking… Uhhh?

Coming from a company that prioritized “after-work” activities, and personally having zero patience with superstition when it involved the handling of flacid rafts, to this day this is still one of the most ridiculous arguments ever witnessed, but I digress. The conversation did turn to one of the young men that was there. One of the guides turned to an ol timer and asked his thoughts about Jimmy. Jimmy was a young, strong, West Virginian local who just seemed to have a knack for guiding rafts. He had some great trips and in his first year had already amassed some good stories and epic customer photos.

But after being asked how good the new kid was, the Ol timer paused and looked at the kid, he said, “I don’t know, I have never seen him in trouble.”

There seemed to be a long pause before I am sure someone broke the silence with a sharp quip. In that moment what we all knew deep down, no matter how good you are, your time is coming when something goes wrong. What makes the greats great is not their performance when things go well, when you win, when you make it look easy. The greats are set apart by how they handle adversity. When the back is against the wall. How they respond to failure. This is true for raft guides and is true for nearly every walk of life. The reality was the young man was good, but what was left to be seen was what he would do when everything seemed to crumble around him. It might take a while, but if you stayed in business long enough it happened to all of us.

Raft guide, firefighter, police officer, pastor, builder… It’s not just the success that makes us, but how you overcome opposition, bounce back from failure and learn from mistakes. It’s the difference between good and great.

Many can let failure, handicap, opposition or struggle become what defines them. The greats rise above, learn, adapt and overcome. They view failure not as a stumbling block but as an opportunity to get better, and go further. The greats seem to have an identity that is placed elsewhere, somewhere other than the day’s performance.

If you are still young enough to not have yet had your moment. Now is the time to prepare. Trouble is coming, it always does. How will you respond?

Us ol’ timers are waiting to see.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river. (PG 13)

“Grab the shoulders and pull.”


Most whitewater guides don’t take themselves very seriously, and certainly don’t take life too seriously. However, a good guide strikes a balance between, life of the party and taking the job dead seriously. Few people in my life lived at those two extremes better than my dear friend Brendan. I learned many things from my friend, …most of which I will never share on this blog… but what I can share, is if I needed help hanging a door there is the right way, wrong way, and the Brendan way, which is the wrong way only slower, but the cooler is full. But when it comes to being on the river, whether it’s a sun soaked day on a lazy float, or an IBS-inducing trip down a class V with folk that have no business being there, (and I’m talking about the other guides) Brendan you are at the top of the list.

Somehow he showed how a calm, collected, seeley-eyed determination that prioritised safety for self and crew could coexist with a hyperactive giddiness for the imminent chaos and doom that awaits unsuspecting patrons and slack jawed yokels.

Amidst the shear mayhem and disorganisation that can often befall a given trip, there’s a line… it takes years of experience to see it, its faint presence is there at all times, on all rivers. On one side of that line, fun, peace, excitement, thrills, stories, and adrenaline all mingle in the tall tales told around campfires and on porches across the world. On the other side of that line lurk stories of a different kind. Buzz killers, stories that haunt dreams, perpetuate sleepless nights and cause guides to queues at port-a-johns at put-in. That line exists on any river, at any level, with any crew. And you are only one bad decision away from crossing it at any given time. I think Brendan could see the line clearer than most and was adept at communicating the levity of a situation and the dangerous proximity to the line with a simple verbal phrase, “Grab the shoulders and pull.” Inevitably the problem is usually with the proximity of one’s head to a place in which the sun seldom shines.

There are times when verbal communication is unrealistic or uncouth. Maybe it’s the roar of the river drowning out all other sounds or simply the boat full of adolescent giggling Girl Scouts that are inhibiting the ability to communicate in an appropriate way.

In these situations an international sign was developed.

To be repeated until situation changes

With hands held high above the head, forcefully extract the fist of one hand from the firm grasp of the other. Repeat as necessary.

This sign is universal and can be utilised in most situations and professions. This form of communication has served me well through the years. Sadly, I will admit I use this and other forms of clear hand communication much less in my profession as a church pastor, but oh how much need there is… so much need!

To my longtime mucker, thank you for all the wisdom and memories, and for being the guy to grab my shoulders and pull, all those times. You certainly are ‘not worthless’ my friend.

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“Always volunteer to scrub the toilets, it’s the worst and easiest job.”


There are few jobs I truly hate in this life, painting and scrubbing toilets are at the top of the list.  I am very good at both.  I have been polishing porcelain honey buckets for most of my life. We’re not talking about weekly chores around the house. I’m talking about the last bastion of legal child labour, workin’ for the family. Back when dad was part owner of a regional theme park, I spent a summer in yellow Marigolds pushing a trolley loaded with supplies to all the public toilets…every day… for almost as much money as you could find in change at the bottom of some of the rides at the end of the year. Along with other terrible jobs I did for dad, he would always tell me “now you know what you don’t want to do with the rest of your life.” more on that in a later post.

Years later, as a first-year raft guide, being a rookie in the company meant we got just enough work to buy the essentials of life to stay alive: egg salad sandwiches and cold Bush beer.  And when you did get work, the time spent on the river was just a fraction of the tasks that needed to be done, handing out wetsuits, prepping snacks, taking the chicken out of the fridge and putting it in the same Mr. Yoshida’s sauce…every day, sorting wetsuits, building fires, cooking, dunking wetsuits, taking out the trash, sell t-shirts, drying wetsuits, paint the deck, sort the recyclables mow the lawn, on and on and on, these jobs got divvied out at the beginning of the day.  The last one to be volunteered for… Cleaning customer toilets. 

There are two types of raft trash, those that choose to do it full time, and the weekend warrior. The weekend warrior has a real job, they’ve been around for a while and they just show up to the party when it’s busy and there’s enough work to go around. One of the legends… Lee

Lee showed up from Boston from time to time. Lee was an avid kayaker, and what he may have lacked in kayaking mastery he more than made up for in chutzpah. Lee was one of my favourites…”Ok”. For Lee, guiding rafts was a necessary evil to help pay for the kayaking habit.

Somehow Lee was always done with work and back on the river before everyone else, and no one cared, because Lee always volunteered to clean the toilets. I took notice.

So I started to volunteer to clean the toilets every time I was picked to work for the day. I had been training for years.

            -It was the job everyone hated.

            “Everyone was thankful someone else had to do it.

            -River managers took notice.

             -It was the easiest job and took the least amount of time.

Sure, every once in a while you had that “special day,” where you weren’t sure how shhhh…tuff ended up where it did, but because those days existed, no one batted an eye that I was chillin’ in the sun sippin’ a frosty cold adult beverage, long before everyone else.  This even worked when farmed out to other companies, They were grateful and called you back,

After a few years of climbing the raft guide ladder, I found myself at the helm of the operation, doling out the tasks for the first-year minions. First you take volunteers and then you just start dispersing tasks like a Read-Option Quarterback on game day. I saved the toilets for myself.

I still volunteer to polish privy when I can, and all these years later have learned some valuable leadership lessons amidst the fumes of bleach and last night’s curry.

-Leaders have to be willing to know what the worst job feels like.

-Leaders who scrub toilets remain humble, and grounded.

-Way easier to ask others to do tasks when you are willing to do the worst one.

-People respect and follow leaders willing to muck in and do the tough stuff.

-Folk will do other terrible tasks knowing you haven’t assigned anything you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.

– Those in leadership above you will notice.

Oh, I still hate cleaning another man’s throne, but I have been scrubbing toilets now for over 35 years. And in the delineation of tasks in my marriage, guess who scrubs the toilets…that’s me, already on the couch, with a cold one in hand. And no one’s complaining.

P.S.A. In case you are wondering, the women’s public toilets are by far THE WORST to clean! Please stop “hovering”, it’s not working!

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong” – Pete

For the most part, whitewater rafting is a relatively safe and exhilarating activity. After all you can’t drown instantly… right? However, when things do go wrong, they get worse fast. On the rare occasions when things didn’t go as planned, let’s say the river is running at flood stage, and you have a full boat of exciting guests and when they ask you how long you have been a professional guide, when you say “six more days makes a whole week”, you are not lying to them. Hypothetically…let’s say in the middle of the biggest rapid on the river the raft seems to explode after hitting a monster hydraulic and is now upside down with everyone bobbing up and down in class IV+ whitewater… hypothetically. Some raft guides could have a tendency to freeze, you might call it “analysis paralysis.”  After climbing onto an upside down raft, eyes wide open, and mouth slightly gaped, a rookie guide from Arkansas might seem to slide back down the evolutionary chart a few notches. Motionless atop the raft just staring at the bright blue helmets bobbing in and out of site like a chaotic game of “whack-a-mole”, the situation only getting worse. That’s when, in the back of your mind, you would hear the words shouted at you daily during training,

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.”  

Now, this is not to say factors shouldn’t be calculated, or options weighed. This isn’t a mantra to simply look busy, franticly attempting a half hearted rescue. In a given circumstance it meant every second that went by the situation was getting worse. Inaction compounded the situation, increased the risk of catastrophic result.

To succeed as a quality guide, we quickly learned to process on the fly, take action, make adjustments, and change plans as needed.  That might mean saving yourself first. Wait isn’t that selfish? Well, there is a reason your airline safety briefing tells you to put your oxygen mask on first.  A raft, an aeroplane, a business, it does the guest, costumer, or employee no good if the leader is out of commision. Putting yourself in a better position enables you to help others rather than being part of the problem.

Often, the root of “analysis paralysis” is a fear. The Kennebec river at flood stage, choking on the freezing water, literally up the river without your paddle it is easy to recognise where the fear might come from, however in the rest of life it might be the fear of a wrong decision, fear it’s not what a peer would do, or fear of failure. On the river, failure to act could lead to someone getting hurt or worse. As leaders we should be able to assess, act, and adjust to the changing circumstances at appropriate time scales. Experiencing fear is normal, but good leaders are able to remain calm and level headed and move forward in the face of fear. And when we experience failure it doesn’t define us as leaders, but becomes an opportunity to learn, adjust, and get better. 

If like me 2020 has not gone to plan for you, now is time to act, embrace the fact things are not going back to the way they were, seize the opportunity, start moving forward, and making course corrections on the way. “Do something… anything… even if it’s wrong.”

As a leader what is your greatest fear?  Hint: It’s not spiders.

What is the first step to overcome?

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

“What the hella ya doin?” 

Pete Dostie, Owner, North American Whitewater

For eight years I guided whitewater rafts down some of the best whitewater rivers in the United States.  Few things go from fun to frightening or calm to chaos faster than a Class V whitewater trip. And if you worked for a rafting company, then you worked for a crazy person. My crazy person was Pete, and I loved him to bits.

From the first day of training to the last day as a seasoned guide, Pete hollered at me. “What the hella ya doin” in his East Haven Connecticut Accent.

Its meaning could be one of affectionate greeting or profound disappointment.  All depending on the tone, which sounded exactly the same.  However, on the river, it generally meant one of three things.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are your decisions and actions deliberate and with purpose?

Guiding whitewater, the difference between “best day ever” and “In the North Maine woods, all accidents are fatal” is the product of thousands of decisions made amid infinite factors, while sometimes clouded by bad decisions from the night before, all shooting for one outcome, “good times had by all.”   Every decision made had to have purpose and intentionality.  First-year guides tend work crews to death because they are constantly making small unnecessary decisions that take bigger necessary decisions to undo. The old geezers, processed the factors, knew when to make the right moves, and make them at the right time.  Least amount of effort for the maximum impact. This preserved the strength of the crew for when you needed it the most.

Effective leadership involves distilling the right information before making deliberate, purposeful decisions.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are you accountable?

Rookie guides love to blame the crew for a bad run, “couldn’t paddle”, “they’re too weak”, “too young”, “too old”, “too many”, “too heavy” or “they just wouldn’t listen.”  The experienced guides know the crew only goes where you guide them. True for work, churches, marriage and ministry, if there is a problem, it is always a leadership problem.  Any given ‘crew’ is right where the leadership led them. Blaming the crew discourages and costs valuable leadership equity. When things go bad, take extreme ownership of the situation. Humbly and appropriately communicate mistakes and then make better decisions. Likewise, when things are going well, focus the attention and praise back on the team. This will build trust and unity and a willingness to follow even when leaders make mistakes.

What the hella ya doin?” = What did you learn from the outcome?

Having all eight of your guests precariously perched on the tip of the only rock in the widest part of the river, while your raft is slowly being sucked under the surface and wrapped around the very rock to which you cling, the last thing you want to hear coming from the banks is “What the hella ya doin?”  A couple of hours later, back at the base it was followed with “let’s not do that again.” To not do it again is to know how you got there in the first place.  As leaders, we need to be keenly aware of what decisions, rightly or wrongly, that were made that led to mistakes we make, so as not to repeat them. As uncomfortable as outside feedback can be, it is imperative to allow respected voices to speak into our lives and point out our blind spots and help hone our leadership skills.  Feedback, good and bad, is invaluable to making us better leaders.

So amidst the biggest crisis the world has seen in two generations,

“What the hella ya doin?”